Paul Pillar

The Still-Missing Opposition Foreign Policy

Many realities of foreign policy do not lend themselves to clear, coherent positions in an election campaign. The reasons for this go beyond the fact that in most election years far more votes are to be won or lost on domestic issues than foreign ones, even during better economic times than we have now. One of the reasons is the reactive nature of much of foreign policy, in which presidents are forced to spend more of their attention dealing with problems the world throws at them than on imposing their own program on the world, however much they may have hoped to do such imposing when coming into office. Even when a foreign-policy issue does figure significantly in an election campaign (Wilson kept us out of war in Europe; Eisenhower will get us out of war in Korea), it is usually a matter of dealing with a problem the world threw at the United States, such as a war someone else started.

It is often said that presidents have more autonomy in foreign than in domestic affairs, and that is true in the sense of having fewer energized domestic political forces to contend with. But having to deal with the problems of a big, unruly world that is even more outside the ability of a U.S. president to shape than are affairs inside U.S. borders means that despite that relative autonomy, there are no greater opportunities to impose an agenda or program in foreign affairs than in domestic ones. The exceptional major cases of imposing such an agenda, either a successful one (Nixon's triangular great-power diplomacy) or an unsuccessful one (the Iraq War) still did not figure into getting the relevant presidents elected. The possibility of launching a war in Iraq had no role in the 2000 campaign; the nuances of the diplomatic strategy Nixon brought into office were too sophisticated to influence many voters in 1968.

Appeals to candidates to sound more strategic and to lay out a foreign-policy strategy are common. But even for the foreign-policy intelligentsia, it may be difficult to distinguish in practice between policy that would be the product of sound strategy and policy that would be the result of what is simply good, skillful, pragmatic handling of the succession of unavoidable problems the world throws at us. And when what purports to be strategy gets formulated in the lexicon of political campaigns, the line between strategy and sloganeering can get very thin. Most of the tradeoffs and complexities that need to be addressed by a good foreign policy are beyond the comprehension or at least the cognizance of the great majority of voters. There are tradeoffs and complexities in domestic policy too, of course, but more of them are ones (e.g., more spending on Medicare means more strain on the federal finances) that much of the electorate can relate to.

We see some of these realities playing out in the fight for Mitt Romney's foreign-policy ear, with some of the most ardent fighters being on the largely neocon Right. Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, in a piece titled “Romney's Missing Foreign Policy,” lays into the Republican nominee pretty strongly with the “we need a strategy” theme. Pletka says, “Mr. Romney needs to persuade people that he’s not simply a George W. Bush retread, eager to go to war in Syria and Iran and answer all the mail with an F-16.” She correctly notes, “Criticisms of Mr. Obama’s national security policies have degenerated into a set of clichés about apologies, Israel, Iran and military spending.” What Romney must do, shes says is to “put flesh on the bones of his calls for a renewed American greatness.”

Setting aside whether Pletka's own recommendations ever really get beyond sloganeering and offer any meat, the speech that Romney delivered on Columbus Day at the Virginia Military Institute should have left any meat eaters hungry. Romney talks about strategy, too, and perhaps the most laudable line in the speech is that the use of drones is “no substitute for a national security strategy in the Middle East.” Quite so. But the most one can extract from the speech about Romney's own strategy is that if one proclaims often enough and loudly enough that America is great, that it is exceptional, that it is a leader and that others in the world want our leadership, somehow those bedeviling problems in the Middle East and elsewhere will get solved.